Risking Liberal Ire, Trump Invokes Operation Wetback As A ‘Humane’ Solution To Illegal Immigration

Stewart Lawrence | Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.

Donald Trump told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” last weekend that he had a “humane” way to send illegal immigrants home. Typically, he didn’t offer many details, but he did mention that the prototype for his plan was a successful round-up and deportation of illegal immigrants in the 1950s. There was indeed such a plan, dubbed “Operation Wetback,” and developed by President Eisenhower to address what was then a growing illegal immigration problem. Ike reached back to his West Point days to find a military officer – General Joseph Swing – whom he trusted to implement his draconian plan, which saw more than a million illegal immigrants deported to Mexico in the space of a year.

Did it work? It depends on who you talk to. Border Patrol agents still talk about the plan as a huge “success,” claiming that most of the nearly 3 million illegal immigrants then in the country were eventually pushed out – or “self-deported,” fearing imminent expulsion. “Operation Wetback” didn’t just escort illegal immigrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, the common practice now. It used buses, trains, railroad and even planes to dump those captured deep into the Mexican interior, where most had no family ties but work, in theory, was plentiful. In fact, many migrated back to their native villages, and some, naturally, tried to re-enter the U.S. illegally.

It’s important to recognize the larger context of Ike’s plan. During World War II, the United States faced labor shortages in key industries, including agriculture. As a result, President Roosevelt decided to enlist Mexico in a cooperative bilateral treaty agreement that would import thousands of Mexican workers to fulfill niches in the low-skill labor market. Known as the “Bracero Program,” the plan was intended to be an orderly and highly regulated way of bringing workers into the country on short-term contracts, and then sending them home when the contracts were completed. It actually worked, in part because the government withheld a significant portion of the worker’s final wages until they had returned to Mexico.

But many farm employers insisted on hiring illegal workers anyway, and some guest workers also never left. So alongside the highly regulated legal system, an illegal market for Mexican laborers grew up. This was the early 1950s and geopolitical concerns were also paramount. With the onset of the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration was worried about the potential infiltration of communist spies across the border. And once the war ended, there was also growing concern about whether Korean War veterans could get jobs. With access to illegal workers, employers could offer them lower wages, which threatened to depress wages for the American work force as a whole. For all of these reasons, pressure grew to end illegal immigration.

Interestingly enough, Mexico, which was heavily invested in the Bracero program, played an important role in Operation Wetback. In that era, Mexico wanted its Bracero workers to return home to fulfill occupational niches in its own burgeoning industries and had no incentive to see them circulating inside the U.S. illegally looking for work. When the United States handed over deported workers, Mexico took responsibility, with U.S. support funding, to find jobs for these workers in central Mexico. In effect, “Operation Wetback” was meant as an adjunct to the Bracero Program, by taking workers who had fallen out of the contract worker system and placing them back in the Mexican labor market, as planned all along.

Like the Bracero Program, Operation Wetback was plagued with abuses — from unpaid wages to harassment and maltreatment by police and Border Patrol officials. The word “wetback” itself came to be seen as highly disparaging, and is considered a slur today — but it was widely used at the time by officials and residents of both sides of the border, much like “gringo” is still used today, to describe Anglo-Americans, with a not-so-subtle hint of cultural mockery. When the program ended, Eisenhower declared success and both sides of the border focused on shoring up the Bracero Program, which continued for another decade.

“Operation Wetback” was not America’s first mass deportation program of Mexicans. Republican Herbert Hoover carried one out in the 1930s during the depths of the Depression. Democrat Harry Truman implemented another in the early 1940s, with returning American war veterans in mind (just as the legal Bracero Program was getting underway). In those days, though, no more than 2-3 million illegal immigrants were in the country, filling a much smaller number of occupational niches – in agriculture primary – and located largely (but not exclusively) along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Today, the estimate of illegal immigrants is 12-15 million and they are present in numerous low-skill industries across the country — and not just in major metropolises, but in tiny rural areas in the South, Midwest and Northwest.  And while still primarily Mexican (about 75 percent, according to most estimates), illegal immigrants increasingly include Poles, Indians, Chinese and Arabs – nearly the full gamut of the world’s populations.

Could another mass round-up and deportation program actually work? Probably not. The federal government simply doesn’t have enough immigration agents to conduct immigration raids of factories and workplaces en masse, and probably couldn’t find enough state and local police forces to assist them. And would Mexico agree to help? Probably not these days, especially when The Donald wants to end NAFTA and start a trade war. Trump would probably have to deploy the U.S. army and the National Guard, but at each stage, his plan would face monumental court challenges – and fierce political opposition — that would likely delay or block implementation for months, maybe years.

Trump’s aware of these challenges; he hinted as much during his interview. But as always he’s being crazy as a fox, putting his plan on the table and asking the voters to decide, knowing that many are angry as hell and demanding stronger action. That’s guaranteed to force other candidates to respond to his agenda and to keep his volatile presidential campaign – and himself – in the limelight. It’s what the Donald does, but it hardly seems “humane.”

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